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Home Office failures on £2bn ESN project see “significant” costs to emergency services

Public Accounts Committee slams government for appearance of complacency in its confidence over much delayed, over-budget emergency services network and calls for revised delivery plan

A damning report by the UK’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found that continued delays to the £2bn Emergency Services Network (ESN) have caused significant costs for the emergency services - and with no mechanism put in place by government to help fund the extra costs.

The new PAC inquiry, its fourth into the delayed and over-budget programme, looked into how much the late delivery of ESN had cost the emergency services, which have had to pay additional technology costs as a result.

The PAC report calculates that ESN transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5m, while the fire service said it had spent £6m preparing for transition and £2m on early versions of ESN which had to be replaced.

Police forces estimate that continuing to use their existing Airwave devices cost £125m since 2018, and expect to spend another £25m by 2026. Forces also spent a further £5m on transition teams. Further costs are inevitable, as current systems will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready for use as intended.

Almost from inception, the ESN network has been beset by delays and cost overruns. In 2015, the UK Home Office contracted suppliers to provide a new ESN to replace the existing and well-liked Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network used by all 108 police, fire and ambulance services across England, Scotland and Wales to communicate between the field and control rooms. As part of its Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), the Home Office intended ESN to fully replace Airwave, cost less and provide users with access to what it described as “modern” mobile data. The government expected to turn off Airwave in 2019.

In the same year, the Home Office contracted mobile operator EE to provide priority access to its mobile network and increase network coverage. It also contracted Motorola Solutions UK for software and systems including critical features not normally found on a mobile network, such as a first-of-a-kind “push-to-talk” functionality.

Numerous delays and criticism of the role of Motorola Solutions eventually led to the firm deciding to end early its involvement in the project. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also opened an investigation into the role of the Airwave network in the ESN in October 2021, with a particular focus on the impact of Motorola’s dual role as the owner of the company providing the planned new mobile radio network and as a key existing supplier. In May 2023, the CMA recommended restricting how much Motorola can charge the emergency services to use Airwave.

The government still does not know when ESN will be ready – it is now not expected until at least 2026, more likely 2029 – and the PAC noted that despite having spent some £2bn, ESN “has not delivered anything substantial or reduced any risks.” The emergency services continue to rely on the Airwave network, which the CMA regards as a monopoly provider of these essential communications services.

The report warns that the Home Office appears complacent in its confidence that it could reduce the risks to the project, and that the department’s seeming optimism appears “disconnected from the reality of its performance to date and the challenges ahead.”

It adds that following Motorola’s departure from the project - and with the department estimating the supplier has been paid some £140m without the taxpayer getting full value - only limited further progress can be made before the Home Office finds a new supplier. Other challenges include integrating the various parts of ESN together, testing the technology, providing the right level of coverage and resilience, and transitioning all emergency services onto the new service.

The PAC now is calling on the government to explore how to help fund the transition to ESN, new Airwave devices and maintaining Airwave for emergency services, as well as producing an outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN by the end of 2023. It stressed that a clear direction must be established for this long-delayed project, but ESN raised wider issues on the approach to public procurement.

“The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in government. There has never been a realistic plan for ESN and no evidence that it will work as well as the current system. Assertions from the Home Office that it will simply ‘crack on’ with the project are disconnected from the reality, and emergency services cannot be left to pick up the tab for continued delays,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier, MP.

“With £2bn already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad. The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal but will be pursuing it regardless. New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor. The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the government is still accountable for value for money when it does so.”

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